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What is Happening in Myanmar? (Pt. 4)

Disclaimer: Due to the size of this article, this post is part of a 5-part series to be published over the course of this week. To read the entirety of the article at once, visit our Medium page.

Part 4

The Last Decade

Despite being from the military-backed party, Thein Sein, actually seems to have made some moves that liberalized Myanmar and moved away from some repressive policies. For instance, the 2012 elections were considered to be more free than the 2010 elections and Suu Kyi actually was appointed to a cabinet-level position.[1] Furthermore, the government signed peace treaties or ceasefires with Shan, Kachin, and Karen ethnic groups in 2011 and 2012.[2] The president also established a commission to investigate violence in the Rakhine State between Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims, a problem that escalated steadily in the next few years. Freedom of the press also seems to have benefitted during this time as new newspapers were founded for the first time in 50 years.

Despite these overtures however, Thein Sein’s regime also had failings. The peace with Kachin rebels did not last and China had to offer to be a mediator before violence escalated further.[3] The Kokang ethnic group in Shan State also staged a large uprising around this time and Thein Sein placed the region under martial law. The Rohingya minority continued to suffer violence in the Rakhine State even after President Obama publicly urged reconciliation on an official visit to the country.[4] The government would actually strip the Rohingya of their voting rights before a constitutional referendum in 2015.[5] By May 2015, hundreds of Rohingya took to the sea in makeshift or otherwise insufficient watercraft in an attempt to flee violence in the Rakhine State.[6]

Aung San Suu Kyi with Barack Obama, 2016. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

In November 2015, Suu Kyi’s NLD won a sweeping victory and was able to form its own government.[7] Though Suu Kyi is barred from becoming president, her party was able to pass a law that granted her the title of State Counsellor and gave her powers akin to that of a prime minister. She had officially become the civilian leader of Myanmar.

As a Nobel Peace Laureate, many Westerners expected Aung San Suu Kyi to be a champion for human rights, and while her government did make some reforms the eyes of the world had turned toward the Rohingya crisis. Suu Kyi became State Counsellor in April 2016 and not even a year later, the United Nations Human Rights Council had decided to investigate violence against the Rohingya Muslims specifically from the Burmese military, the Tatmadaw.[8] By October 2017, it is estimated that over one million Rohingya Muslims had fled to Bangladesh to escape the military’s crackdown, which some said amounted to ethnic cleansing. A 2018 report from the UN would go further, claiming that the Tatmadaw and Myanmar by extension had committed genocide and other war crimes against the Rohingya Muslims.[9] The Burmese government, including Suu Kyi, rejected these claims.[10] Suu Kyi even once asked the American ambassador to Myanmar not to refer to the ethnic group as Rohingya since the government did not recognize them as a specific ethnic group. This, of course, is due to the act passed under San Yu decades earlier which characterized non-indigenous groups as “associate citizens.”

The report had also recommended sending six Tatmadaw generals to the International Criminal Court but that was never brought to a vote. China has veto power over such decisions and Chinese-Myanmar relations have grown significantly since China recognized the SPDC in 2001.

Perhaps the most shocking scene of Suu Kyi’s term was when she chose to travel to the Hague to defend the Tatmadaw, the very people who had imprisoned her for years, in front of the International Court of Justice in 2019.[11] This may not have been too shocking for the people following the news reports coming from the few journalists who coil get close enough to the horrors in the Rakhine State. The government had been trying to stifle foreign press for years, but some stories still managed to get out. Perhaps one of the most significant incidents involving the foreign press was that of Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone. According to a police captain, he had been ordered to entrap the two journalists in order to arrest them under the Official Secrets Act.[12] The journalists had published stories and photos of brutal crimes perpetrated by the Tatmadaw against Rohingya Muslims. Because of the entrapment, both journalists were convicted and sentenced to seven years in jail, but Myanmar’s president, Win Myint, eventually caved to international pressure and granted them amnesty after more than 500 days in prison.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s party once again won a landslide election in 2020 despite concern over Suu Kyi’s handling of the economy and Covid-19.[13] Unfortunately for Suu Kyi, her party, her followers, and many many people in Myanmar, the military-backed party, USDP, declared the election to be illegitimate.[14] On this pretext, military leaders initiated a coup on February 1, 2021.

[1]"Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Democracy Icon Who Fell from Grace." BBC News. March 05, 2021. Accessed April 08, 2021.

[2] "Myanmar Profile - Timeline." BBC News. September 03, 2018. Accessed April 08, 2021.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Kurlantzick, Joshua. "Obama's Visit to Myanmar: A Mixed Result." Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed April 08, 2021.

[5] "Myanmar's Rohingya Stripped of Right to Vote in Referendum." Deutche Welle. February 12, 2015. Accessed April 08, 2021.

[6] “Myanmar Profile - Timeline”

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Darusman, Marzuki. "Myanmar: UN Fact-Finding Mission Releases Its Full Account of Massive Violations by Military in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan States." OHCHR. September 18, 2018. Accessed April 09, 2021.

[10] “Aung San Suu Kyi: Myanmar Democracy Icon Who Fell from Grace”

[11] Simons, Marlise, and Hannah Beech. "Aung San Suu Kyi Defends Myanmar Against Rohingya Genocide Accusations." December 11, 2019. Accessed April 09, 2021.

[12] "Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo: Reuters Journalists Freed in Myanmar." BBC News. May 07, 2019. Accessed April 09, 2021.

[13] “Myanmar Profile - Timeline”

[14] Goodman, Jack. "Myanmar Coup: Does the Army Have Evidence of Voter Fraud?" BBC News. February 05, 2021. Accessed April 09, 2021.


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